Reviews of Clinton’s memoir were deleted for violating company guidelines, Amazon says

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Copies of Hilary Clinton's new book "What Happened" line shelves before she arrives for a book signing in Barnes & Noble Union Square in Manhattan, New York, US September 12 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly - RC1C65D4A820

Copies of Hilary Clinton’s new book “What Happened” line shelves before she arrives for a book signing in Barnes & Noble Union Square in New York. Photo by REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Mega-retailer Amazon has come under scrutiny for deleting nearly 900 predominately negative reviews of Hillary Clinton’s new campaign memoir “What Happened.” The number of reviews spiked to more than 1,400 following the book’s release, split almost evenly between glowing praise and scathing condemnation.

When only around 500 reviews were on the e-commerce site Friday morning, some saw Amazon’s decision to remove them as censorship. More negative reviews surfaced this morning directly referencing the redactions.

Manipulation of content, including unusually high numbers of reviews, are grounds for removal according to Amazon’s community guidelines. In a statement emailed to PBS NewsHour, an Amazon spokesperson said, “We never suppress reviews based on star rating or sentiment. We have triggers in place to detect when numerous reviews post in a short amount of time that are unrelated to the product.”

Tommy Noonan, founder of product review analysis site ReviewMeta, says concerns that Amazon’s deletions serve as a cover-up of negative press is false, according to his data.

ReviewMeta’s report on “What Happened” revealed that over 50 percent of the book’s initial reviews were from unverified users who hadn’t actually purchased the book from Amazon.

ReviewMeta uses a complex system of tests to measure unnatural trends in product reviews to help customers make informed purchases. Tests examine patterns in product reviews, posting frequency and characteristics of the reviewers themselves. ReviewMeta’s report on “What Happened” revealed that over 50 percent of the book’s initial reviews were from unverified users who hadn’t actually purchased the book from Amazon.

Additionally, ReviewMeta monitors review deletion rates as yet another way to identify irregular reviewing behavior. If the site sees high rates of deletions from Amazon’s platform, it’s a signal that the content might not be legitimate. Amazon says that when “triggers” are activated, all non-Amazon Verified Purchase reviews are removed.

In the case of Clinton’s book, most of the unverified reviews flagged for removal happened to be negative. After a deeper investigation into similar cases, Noonan says “review brigades” were probably at work. Review brigading is usually perpetrated by trolls who band together online to trash talk a product through the review section. “You see a lot of that happening with popular, politicized figures,” Noonan said speaking anecdotally.

Clinton’s other books, including “Stronger Together,” also experienced review brigading that was subject to Amazon-sanctioned removal, according to Noonan. Last Christmas, Amazon similarly cleaned up around 3,000 unverified reviews for a “Make America Great Again” tree ornament.

Last Christmas, Amazon cleaned up around 3,000 unverified reviews for a “Make America Great Again” tree ornament.

The list of recent review brigade victims is long, spanning the reaches of both literature and film. Noonan recalls similar online attacks against Megyn Kelly and Amy Schumer. NewsHour covered similar trends surrounding the film “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was also lambasted online.

Extensive research has been done concerning the influence that reviews have on purchasing decisions. Researchers agree that product reviews carry a lot of weight for consumer behavior.

And those reviews can often come from unverified users. According to research by Eric Anderson from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern and Duncan Simester at MIT Sloan School of Management, reviews by unverified users are twice as likely to receive a one-star review.

“There is a lot of evidence out there that some of the reviews that appear on different sites may not indeed be truthful,” said Anderson. “On average, these reviews that we couldn’t link back to a purchase were fairly negative.”

Fraudulent reviews also look a certain way, according to the research. Indicators in the text, like the use of multiple exclamation points, can be a signal someone is being deceptive, Anderson said.

Amazon maintains it shouldn’t be the one to make decisions on what constitutes a review as helpful or unhelpful, but the company does strive to ensure that the voices of the many don’t overrun the voices of the few.

“Reviews are meant to help customers by providing real feedback on a product from other customers who have tried it,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

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